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Michael Ubaldi, April 12, 2005.

Ramesh Ponnuru questions Joe Engel's approach to "take back" the term "liberal":

Joel Engel has a piece on the shifting meanings of the word liberal. He wants to retrieve the word for an older, better liberalism. Fair enough. And several of his specific points are reasonable. But a few of them go overboard in a way that weakens his force. ...It may be that liberals should be criticized for not doing enough to distance themselves from people who hold [extremist] sentiments; but it is neither true nor fair, I think, to suggest that most liberals hold those sentiments themselves. And it advances no worthwhile cause to depict our society as more divided than it actually is.

True enough; I believe that friends and acquaintances who consider themselves Democrats or leftward would drop those banners if they more deeply investigated Republicans and the right.

"Liberal" needs to be reapplied as a circumstantial political definition; not an intrinsic, ideological one. And at the same time, terms "liberal" and "conservative" must be separated from "left" and "right." With a quick glance at world history we find that infant exposure, elder or infirmed mercy-killing, arbitrary coupling or sanctioned chemical intoxication is not at all "progressive" or unprecedented to societal evolution; while no precursor exists for morally outlawing dictatorship, globalized trade that respects sovereignty, a market-invested middle class, or equal respect for the sexes within long-held social arrangements. Literally, today the "right" is liberal and the "left" is conservative.

Most of the trouble in modern American politics seems to have come from an open invitation during the Sixties and Seventies to ideologies hitherto popularly ostracized and confined to the intellectual outskirts of lunacy — collectivism, solipsism, nihilism. These "beliefs" are pathological to the liberal state; not at all constructive in any national discussion. As a consequence of these systems' acceptance in the Western or American conversation — however slight — much time and energy is wasted establishing what should be self-evident. Imagine if a scientific research laboratory had to start every day with a four-hour epistemological ritual and begin work on experiments only after the faculty could agree on a justified definition of all accumulated data and knowledge. American debate suffers a similar debilitation as the left, increasingly morally ambivalent and illiterate, forces parties to regularly prove the beneficence of the West, liberalism, capitalism, religion, free will — and for each go-round, the possibility one of these pillars might be kicked out from under by a good performance.

What can be done? The spectrum of rational discourse must be narrowed. New media has done an exemplary job of forcing nonsensical claims into open, fair debate; a place where extremism can't survive. Engel suggests that the associative sequence between classically liberal politics and counteractive, destructive and authoritarian philosophies is far too compressed — put into starkly concrete terms by Byron York's investigative work (here, here, here and here) — and needs to be lengthened considerably. Illiberal arguments need to be set upon, logically and morally rejected as absurd. It must be done, and the citizenry can do it.

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